Monday, April 29, 2013

The Most Perfect Human Man

I have read mmmmmmaaaaybe 1,000 romance novels in my lifetime so you'll indulge me when I say I have a pretty, prettttyyy, prettttty, great idea of what constitutes The Most Perfect Human Man (TMPHM). I'd like to share that knowledge with you, dearest Skeptics - just in case you had actual lives and haven't spent all your time carefully cataloging Hero tropes so you could compile your own vision of TMPHM.

TMPHM is an alpha-dawg obviously, confident without being cocky, charming but not smarmy. He is of means, FABULOUS means - like if whoever started Twitter also ran a high turnover, cocaine-refining side business - because after all, cash is king. 
Despite his incredible wealth, he is also honorable, kind and thoughtful. Some have called him arrogant. And to that he says, - it's not arrogance if it's true <wink, wink, winsome smile>.

He's not aggressive unless someone he loves is threatened and then It. Is. ON. He practices non-violence but is good with his fists because he has done some terribly physical and risk taking things in his past life - he was a military man, a towering sports figure, cop/firefighter etc. He also has a painful back story (tyrannical father, cheatin' ex, trauma from his past risk-taking life) that has left him aloof - disinclined to love and risk the only part of him that isn't invincible - his heart. 

Now, if you've read more than 1.5 romance novels (historical, contemporary, vampiric - doesn't matter) you know who I'm talking about. TMPHM is basically Bruce Wayne without the weird flying rodent fixation. We love him, even though try to steal ourselves against his onslaught of manliness. In fact, I suspect the reason 50 Shades did so well was because Christian Grey basically embodied every single one of the mighty hero tropes in one effed up and apparently irresistible bundle. (They may have taken it one bedroom restraint further than your typical TMPHM, but take out the extremely weird soft-S&M stuff and blank out those cheesy email exchanges and we basically have your average Hunky-Billionaire-Takes-a-Woman story).

Beyond these personality traits, I am struck by the same-y-ness of the physical descriptions of TMPHM. I feel as if there is a giant conspiracy going on where I have been kept from ever having set eyes on this guy, because he's out there - the fact that every single author has written about him means that he IS out there. Because if you don't believe this, then what's even the point, am I right?

Anyway, just so y'all know what we're looking for, I catalog his features below. If you see someone resembling this description, remember TAKE A PICTURE, print it out, laminate it and put it in your everyday purse. That way when things are getting too real (e.g. real life Honey is letting out some savage nacho burps) you can whip it out to coo at and sigh over. Just a little vacation for when things get dark. 

Hair: Dark, thick and soft like the pelt of a rare black panther

Eyes: Grey, inscrutable; best described by the use of geological terminology - stony, granite, slate, flinty

Nose: Aquiline; worthy of a commander of the Pretorian Guard

Cheekbones: Chiseled; see Eyes/Geological terminology

Jaw: Wide, square like the hull of an indomitable battleship

Shoulders: Sisyphean and strapping - able to carry the weight of the world up the endless crest of life

Chest: Hard unyielding planes of muscle and sinew

...Actually I had better just stop there. It is not because I am too prudish to go lower. Never that! It's just that I think there is something slightly absurd and un-heroic about the bottom half of a dude.   Especially taken item by item. I mean, can you really think of guy as being TMPHM when you've analyzed his toes? His hairy knees? The old cockle-doodle-doo*? No, you cannot. Obviously we've strayed into deep psychologically disturbed areas of my subconscious. That was not my intention, I assure you. But it has happened now and I'll just have to work through it offline. With a battery of therapists, a hypnotist and some Entenmann's pound cake.

To ask for your forbearance, I leave you with this. It's not TMPHM but it is lovely, and you'll have a nicer day upon having seen it:

Happy hunting! May your eyes feast upon TMPHM at least once in your lives!

*I know some will disagree on this particular point. But I contend that while there are a few shining moments of glory for this feature of TMPHM, those moments are fleeting. For the most part, his raging masculinity notwithstanding, even TMPHM remains in repose. And in that state the topic is certainly best left alone.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Rogue Pirate's Bride by Shana Galen

Skeptic Scale: ♥♥♥♥♥
Ahoy me mateys! International Talk Like Pirate Day is on September 19th. That should give you enough time to brush up on the language of swashbucklers and sinners!

I cracked open this book and almost immediately it was like someone off a film set for Pirates of the Caribbean yelled "Lights! Camera! Action!" and Boom! Kapow! The flurry or activity never stopped until I turned the last page. I don't think the story was necessarily anything totally new. It was more of a superbly executed summer blockbuster than something profound and intense starring Cate Blanchett. And you know what? No disrespect to Ms. Blanchett, but huzzah! 

She: Raeven Russell, daughter of a British admiral, is out to avenge her fiance's death. The person she is after is the notorious scourge of the seas - Captain Cutlass. Raeven is up for the challenge. She be a saucy wench, swashbuckling and strong and pretty handy with a sword.

He: The erstwhile Marquis de Valère, aka Bastien Harcourt, aka Captain Cutlass, has a colorful past. He was run out of France during the revolution when he was only a child and has spent his life on the wide open sea pillaging and privateering. Cutlass is a pirate, true, but he's is a cultivated brigand, and roguishly charming to boot.

Conflict: Well, there's the whole thing about her trying to kill him to avenge the death of her fiance. But that's not the real conflict. The real conflict is the utter inappropriateness of the attraction they feel for one another - he did (unwittingly) cause her fiance's death, and he is a pirate and someone her father, a naval officer of the Crown, is compelled to apprehend - they obviously cannot be together. But when they are, it's all so perfect, you can't see another choice for them.

A note about piratical bathing habits. They are poor. I know just like you never hear about characters going to the loo in a story, you shouldn't really need to hear about them taking baths - except when mentioned in a sexual context. But it was a real point of distraction for me. Just imagining the rankness of that ship's hold... I'm not sure I'm ready for that kind of adventure.

Anyway, my concerns about maritime sanitation aside, SG gave us some good old fashioned fun with this story. I can't wait to read another pirate book. I will dig around and see what I turn up.
The Rogue Pirate's Bride (The Sons of the Revolution, #3)

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Perfect For You by Kate Perry

Skeptic scale: ♥♥
Hot or Not - dude pursues you relentlessly even after you've made it clear you have no interest, then scares away other potential paramours, conspires with your family members to trap you into seeing him and "proposes" to you by declaring "you'll marry me"?

She: Web designer
He: Divorce lawyer

Conflict: She has a deep hatred for lawyers because her father, a doctor, was "cheated" by a malpractice attorney and lost all his worldly possessions in the lawsuit. After this, both he and her mother were killed in a car accident leaving the h and her sister all alone in the world. Nursing a deep hatred for the lawyer who ruined her family's life means she can never love a lawyer.

Plot hole that could have been resolved by story-boarding this with my 6-year old niece:
1) My niece, for example, would be able to tell you that malpractice attorney does not equal divorce attorney. (She watches many legal dramas - it's something we're trying to wean her off.)The assumption that all lawyers are a-hole cheating bastards beggars belief and makes me think the h is not a mature adult who should be in a relationship with anyone. Also, to make the tension/conflict more believable it seems like the author could have easily changed the H's profession to make his character a malpractice attorney or even changed it so the h's was scarred by a divorce lawyer instead. C'mon sister...

Other issue:
This other issue comes up again and again in contemporaries so I feel bad heaping all the blame on this book. I have one basic question that I'd like answered in every romance - 

WHY does the H like her and the h like him? That's all I really want to know. And if I am clear on this ONE basic "why" I will buy almost anything - shape-shifters, time travelers, bear fighters, rakish dukes who somehow manage never to contract any strange bedroom diseases despite their debauched ways. But if the issue of why remains unresolved even by the end, I wouldn't even have believed in Elizabeth and Darcy. 

In this story specifically, the h is gorgeous and hot and she lives downstairs so there's the proximity thing. But WHY does he decide almost immediately that she's The One when all she's done is push him away and be generally bitchy to him? 

I want to do a thorough analysis of why authors use this "Pursuit" device so often. Is it because all girls have a secret fantasy of being relentlessly pursued by a hot, amazing dude even when we've been saying "no" the whole time? Seems weirdly rape-fantasy-ish to me. Yeah, yeah, he's obviously a nice guy and perfect for her in every way, but the thick-headedness of his pursuit seems out of proportion with the negative signals she gives him.

Anyway, all my irritation with the Conflict aside, I can say that the writing was smooth. The H was a cutie and despite the description of an excessively cheese ball early-90's-mills-and-boon-level date they have, it was an ok read.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Romantical Skeptic List-tastic: Top 12 Historical Romances

We laughed, we cried, we wished for a return of those bygone times when men's breeches gave away exactly what they felt for a lady and we didn't have to read between the 140 characters on his twitter account...Here are my top 12:

12. The Duchess War by Courtney Milan
11. Silk Is For Seduction by Loretta Chase
9. The Duke by Gaelen Foley* 
8. Taming Rafe by Suzanne Enoch
6. Until You by Judith McNaught
5. I Kissed an Earl by Julie Anne Long
3. Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase
2. What I Did For a Duke by Julie Anne Long
1. Whitney, My Love by Judith McNaught

9. The Duke: This link is of a review on the site Heroes and Heartbreakers and is awesome. It has a totally different take on it than mine but it's such a good review, I had to include it.

Chesty men, buxom ladies
A call to action! Someone, please do a study on whether there is a correlation between amount of female shoulder skin shown and level of perceived attractiveness. The market has clearly said "yes" - see below. All that remains now is for a Skeptic of a scientific bent of mind to assess why. The public needs to know.

Fool For Love by Eloisa James

Skeptic scale: ♥♥♥♥♥
EJ writes truly classical stories. The language and characterization are superb and you feel like you're wandering around in a lovely watercolor rendering of an English country estate. But never fear Skeptics! It's not all rainbows and lawn tennis. 

There is a wicked scene between the H&h in a goat pasture than managed to be nice and lusty - making me forget, for a few moments, how terribly odorific and ill-tempered goats are. Now that was good writing.

She: Clever-tongued, high-born heiress Lady Henrietta Maclellan doesn't join the running to find and marry a rich gentleman because she is born with a weak hip that makes it impossible for her to have children. Even with her pots of money, what gentleman would want her with this terrible "disfigurement"?

He: Simon Darby suddenly stands to lose his inheritance to his deceased uncle's newly born heir. He travels to the countryside to see that his uncle's scandalous young wife has really given him a legitimate heir. Unfortunately for Simon, the baby is legitimate and that means Simon's out a juicy inheritance.

Conflict: She has always felt that she could not marry because she would not be able to produce an heir - something that a husband would, no doubt, desire. The H insists that he doesn't really give a fig about children and producing an heir, and that her inability to have children is of no consequence to him. She takes some convincing but manages to come around, comforting herself that she would be able to bring something to the marriage because at least her dowry can replace Simon's inheritance now that he has lost it to his aunt's newborn son.

There is also a sweet little side-story of the scandalous aunt and her love affair with another  gentleman, but that's fleshed out in another book and I'll leave it for another post.

The story deals with some difficult topics such as the state of women's healthcare and the reality of the incredibly patriarchal inheritance laws of the time. EJ doesn't make these political, of course, it was just the way things were those days. 

One point about the ending that will be a spoiler (but not really - we all know that everything has to work out in the end, right?) - I was a little sorry to see that even though the H & h truly do love one another, the HEA "package" still included the miraculous "fixing" of Henrietta's hip so she can have children. Seems to say that the HEA wouldn't have been complete without the possibility of progeny. Which I absolutely do NOT agree with and think is an annoying suggestion. But I read this when I was a lot younger and wasn't as quick to get offended about these types of things!

The fact remains that this is a fantastic read and one of my very favorites.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Duchess War by Courtney Milan

Skeptic Scale: ♥♥♥♥♥

This red dress on the cover - do you know if I can get it on Amazon? I have a coupon for free shipping and I think it would just be sublime for my annual Here Comes Summer barbecue.   

First of all let me ask a question about language. Is it possible to get turned on by language? I don't mean talking dirty to your long distance boyfriend who's studying abroad in Australia for Fall semester. And I don't even mean, the libidinous musings of Lord Byron or the breathless sonnets of Willy Shakespeare. I mean, can you literally get squirmy reading sentences like this one:

"Of course you're charming... I'm charmed to my teeth." There was a note in her voice that sounded so bitter it almost tasted sweet. 

"You're a force of nature, Your Grace," she said. "But so am I. So am I."

Oh God. It's happening again.

Talk about getting totally swept away by a romance novel. We discuss everything here - the rights of women, the impact of industrialization on English society, the changing views towards the peerage and its archaic inheritance laws - even the excitement of Darwin's theories of natural selection. And in the middle of it all, our hero and heroine, not just perfectly drawn character studies, but agents for change. You get the sense that their love really matters, in an epic kind of way, for the future of British society.

He: Robert Blaisdell, the Duke of Clermont, it not your typical peer of the realm. He is a radical and a passionate "righter of wrongs". His life's mission is to do the right thing and he does it - even when it means he might lose the people who he loves most. He's kind and heroic in a wonderful, quiet way.

She: Miss Minerva Lane, strategist and logician, the woman vibrates with an energy that practically buzzes through the page and through your fingers. She quiet, intense and not particularly beautiful - not the ideal resume for a would-be wife of a typical young gentleman in good society. But she doesn't need a typical gentleman - she needs a radical and a revolutionary and that's exactly what she gets.  

Conflict: So many! The obvious one of course, is that he is a duke and she's a commoner. And not just any commoner, but one with a scandalous past. And not the same old scandal of getting her virtue ruined by a rakish lord in her previous life. But a real, proper scandal that's both depressing and incredibly exhilarating  

The next layer of conflict is the damage done to both of them by their families, leaving each with emotional scars that makes them fear even the hope of a Happily Ever After.

What I absolutely LOVED:
1) Both H & h, so finely drawn I thought I knew them, stay true to character throughout the story. He is passionate about justice, and stays true to that goal even when it means he must sacrifice love and his own happiness. She is a master tactician and stays that way even in the throes of uncertainty and unhappiness. 

Often authors will show characters acting outside their true nature because the author wants a shorthand way to up the stakes. In this story the stakes are already as high as they could go and neither character ever deviates from their true selves - even for the other. It's a strange thing to show in a romance novel, but it was perfect.

2) Marvelously, the story is by turns witty, hot, depressing and inspiring. I went through an entire estrogen cycle in the space of the 6 hours it took to read this book. Thankfully, I was on a plane and no one I knew had to be subjected the emotion overflow that took place all over my kindle. The guy in 11F may have a few words to share with me, but he knew the risks of trying to get some shut eye on a flight and should have planned ahead with some earplugs and an eye mask. I won't be blamed for rookie mistakes.

What I didn't like as much:
Nothing. I got nothing. I loved everything. Even the cover. Which is a weird thing for me to say because I usually think covers detract from the general awesomeness of a book. But this cover kicked ass and I want a pretty red dress just like that. I can wear it and stride about in my bedchamber (dinky little bedroom) ordering the servants (dust motes) around.

Time Off For Good Behavior by Lani Diane Rich

Skeptic Scale: ♥♥♥

She: Everything goes wrong for the h - she loses her job, she suffers a terrible accident, she's getting harassed by a jerk of an ex-husband - and it has all left her a shrill and crochety cow. She needs to rebuild her life and while she's going through the painful process she meets the H.

He: A kind, patient lawyer who volunteers himself for the role of Knight in Shining Armor. We learn almost nothing about him except he is nice and has a sad back story. A nice, beta man that you wouldn't mind bringing to your Aunt Edna's knitting circle.

Conflict: The story is highly h-focused so the thing that keeps them apart is the h's (very accurate) conviction that she needs to sort out her own life before getting into anything with a dude.

What I liked:
1) The banter was quick and sharp and not forced even if it was a bit on the sitcom-y side.

2) Fast paced and generally funny

3) Had a sort of girl-power theme about it (hot pink cover = Girls Who Kick Ass But Who Still Totally Own Their Girliness) and I liked that we focus on the woman lead through the woman's own eyes, and not through the "Male Gaze"* (high fiving all my second-wave feminist sisters! woo hoo!)

What I mean by this is that we learn about the woman's thoughts and personality, her transition to a more centered human, through her own voice and not from the dude's description of how "her eyes seemed to glow with renewed vigor", or how "her skin, smooth and supple, did nothing to hide the inner strength he knew she possessed." This is a non-trivial point for me, because it almost never happens in romance novels.

What I was only meh about:
1) The hero was really underdeveloped. For example, you find out this tragic thing about his past and that is supposed to stand as proxy for his entire personality. Again, this is one of situations where H falls for h in spite of her craziness and I am left flapping my mouth like a trout  hung on a plaque in the basement - WHY DOES HE EVEN LIKE THIS CHICK???? GIMME A REASON!

2) The h is a bitter shrew. I mean, aggressively rude, temperamental and has a history of terrible decision-making. I was almost shocked in the first couple chapters with her portrayal (very impressed, but also a little scared - for instance I wouldn't want to be the chick reaching for the same cab door as her and then getting shoved out of the way into a slimy puddle because she would totally be the crazy cat to do that to someone who got in her way.) 

So yeah, hardly an endearing h.

3) ANOTHER crazy-stalker side story. This time it's an ex-husband. It's getting super old. I am not sure WHY the H would want to get involved with such a person? 

Romances always explain this point by making the hero out to be someone who wants to "save everyone". 

This is dumb and evolutionarily impossible. You only have a biological desire to save things you love/want to have sex with, or share genes with. And babies and puppies - but that's nature's way of making sure genes of the human race and those that we engineered to co-evolve with us are preserved. So gimme another reason he should fall in love with her before wanting to save her.

Side note: For as cavalier as people are about sex in general, there is this amazing tendency in romance novels to show how people fall in love in the seconds after doing the deed (usually the first time with each other and Bam!)... I wonder why? Is that the ultimate romance then? Lots of very modern sexual tension followed by an almost puritanical moment after fluids are exchanged where one or both parties realize this is love for Realz? Not getting it, and certainly not buying it. But I keep reading about it so maybe the joke's on me...

*Just in case anyone wants to know more about the objectification of women in the media and social consciousness:

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Can You Keep a Secret by Sophie Kinsella

Skeptic scale: ♥♥
Story about a girl who is woefully maladapted to keeping secrets - we hear them all within 6 pages and please believe me when I say they are all extremely dumb. 

SK is a good writer - no doubt about that. The book is a quick, light read and there were a few bright moments where I thought I was in for a really great time. Unfortunately, I found the whole thing so tiresome and cliched it was hard to work up any real enthusiasm for the HEA.

He: American CEO of the Company where the h works. He comes to the UK office for some important business and that's where the story is set.

She: Low-ish level, secret-keeping, somewhat immature employee of the company 

Conflict: I'm at a loss to describe what exactly is keeping the two characters apart - maybe because she's a space-cadet with a lot of trouble sticking to reality, or perhaps it's because the H sort of disappears periodically on some secret mission of his own. I couldn't tell you.

The story began strong - she's on a plane sitting next to him (she doesn't yet know he's the CEO of the company) and when they hit turbulence she panics and spills her guts, telling him every secret she's ever kept. Cheesy, but still ok. The story sort of just plods along from there, with her getting caught in sillier and sillier deceptions and him just sort of coolly raising an eyebrow and apparently falling for her air-headedness. 

Issues I had with this book:

1) WHY does the guy fall for her? This is the whole "Bridget Jones" thing again, but unlike the romp-iness of BJ, this h doesn't have the same charm. We're supposed to believe that a with-it, rich and fabulous dude just falls for a manic, fluttery, professionally unsuccessful woman with a myriad issues with the truth? I see why he would flirt with her (can't remember from the description but I assume she was cute)... but why fall for her?

2) No physical chemistry. Like, at all.

3) Emphasis on the "secrets" which are not secrets at all. Oh, she lies about her weight does she? She has a Barbie bedspread? She can't stand one of her co-workers. Why are people even embarrassed about sh!t like that? And H's secret is stupid and adds nothing to the story except to show that unlike her, he can keep a secret.

Crazy in Love by Lani Diane Rich

Cover of: Crazy in Love (Warner Forever) by Lani Diane Rich
Skeptic scale: ♥♥♥

I though this was an entertaining read for the most part - the characters where interesting and fun and the set up was a pseudo-believable crime/romance combo - but I thought perhaps it wasn't quite the right "fit" for me. 

I am seeing a theme whenever I read a humor/crime/romance story - I don't take the crime part seriously (because honestly, when the tone is light and funny, my inner Skeptic feels like it's not really meant to be a dire life/death situation for the characters). I also don't totally invest in the romance angle, because with all the stuff about the crime and mystery, there's less time devoted to showing how the romance unfolds. I won't say that I categorically don't like these books - I do! But I guess they just don't do it for me because there is just a lot going on. In any case, this was a fun, light read and I would probably pick up another from LDR.

She: Privileged daughter of a wealthy real estate developer who doesn't really have a sense of direction or purpose until she joins the family business and is put in charge of taking care of a cute but not hugely profitable hotel that the family inherits from a dead aunt. 

He: Former cop and current bartender at the hotel who has some suspicions about an embezzlement case involving the hotel.

Conflict: There was no conflict between the H&h per se. There is chemistry and attraction between the two as they try to solve the embezzlement case together and then the only thing standing between them is whether she will stay at the hotel or whether she will return to her driftless life in the city.

What I liked:
1) I thought the mystery part was handled well - there weren't many characters in the novel so it was easy to feel like "oh, I knew it!" when you get to the whodunnit. But honestly, I wasn't trying to "pre-solve" the mystery so it was engaging.

2) Both characters were likable and nice. The H seemed very young. I couldn't say why - maybe because he wasn't a game-player - he just seemed like a genuinely nice dude. She too came across and someone who was sincere in trying to find somewhere where she really fit.

What I thought was only meh:
1) They were attracted to one another, yes, but there wasn't like a big wham! scene where they were hot and heavy and clearly meant to happen. It all was very nice and cute and a tad bit slow...

2) There was a thing about the dead aunt's ghost "communicating" with the h. I guess I just don't dig paranormal stuff because it razzes my Skepto-meter and makes everything else just a little less believable.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Accidental Duchess by Jessica Benson

Skeptic scale: ♥♥♥♥♥
It was like Elizabeth Bennet's voice in my head, reading this to me in 2013, both of us giggling and in virginal white smocking nighties. Her wit and intelligence honed even further over the centuries to the fiendish sharpness of Jessica Rabbit's stiletto.

The book begins with this sly observation: 

"I married the wrong man. And by this I do not mean, as people so often do, any of the more cryptic things that you might imagine: That I awoke one morning to the realization that my husband and I had grown apart. That I discovered something about my spouse that caused me to doubt that we were well-suited. Nor, even, that I had met by chance an old love in Bond Street...What I do mean is that yesterday I stood up in St. George's, Hanover Square, and before some three hundred witnesses promised to love, honor, and obey the wrong man.

And delightful merriment ensues.

He: A paragon, gentleman nonpareil, the illustrious Earl of Cambourne. He is also the twin of the man to whom our heroine is betrothed. His twin, younger by 15 minutes, is the frivolous and irresponsible Bertie Milburn.

She: A clever, well-born woman who has been promised to the H's brother almost since the day she was born. She comes from a political, well-connected family that contains some rather hilarious characters - including a domineering mother and be-turbanned aunt who is actually her mother's best friend (and maybe a little more?).

Conflict: A case of mistaken identity puts the h at the altar with the Earl of Cambourne, and not her intended betrothed, his brother Milburn. We learn through a series of amusing and whimsical plot twists that there's a reason that the h ends up marrying Cambourne, and it's not just all a big mistake.

The whole book was a rollicking, incredibly witty ride - a very different book than the traditional Regency romances I normally love. It was like an Oscar Wilde play - a wide, hilarious cast of characters, a loopy plot that causes people to behave in extraordinary and silly ways and just an amazing combination of cunning humor and situational comedy. Happily, JB still manages to retain the romantic (ok fine, crazysexycute) bits so it wasn't all just silliness and fun.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

By Love Undone by Suzanne Enoch

Skeptic scale: ♥♥♥♥♥

This book really has it all - witty banter, lovable characters, superb one-liners, and a wonderfully original doing-it scene in a proper London drawing room. 

He: Quinlan Bancroft, Marquis of Warefield is everything you would expect a nobleman to be - gentlemanly, urbane, immensely wealthy and of course, possessed of looks "to disquiet a maiden's heart." We find out as the story progresses, he is sensitive, charming and plain old nice. Importantly, he is far from the do-gooding papa's boy he appears to be at the outset. 

She: Maddie Willits is the paid companion of Quin's uncle, Malcolm Bancroft. She assists Malcolm in the management of Langley Hall and has proven herself a worthy helper. We also learn that she is hiding from a scandal in her youth when she is ruined by lordly scumbag.

Conflict: Although Quin is immediately struck by Maddie's uniqueness, he also knows nothing can come of his flirtation with her - their social situations are just too different and besides, he has been betrothed, practically since birth, to a woman of impeccable refinement and breeding. Maddie, for her part, wants nothing to do with Quin because in her experience, fancy London noblemen cause nothing but trouble for girls like her.

There's a lot of push and pull between H&h; their chemistry is undeniable but so is the utter impossibility of their being together. Their arguments are heated and laced with a sort of comic brilliance that I, who am not normally one for histrionics between men and women, was actually a little disappointed that I have never experienced for myself, the sort of passionate anger that leads to ripped bodices and mangled cravats. Ah well...That's what romance novels are for!

Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo

Skeptic scale: ♥♥♥♥

New favorite question to ask when reading anything, including Justin Bieber's twitter feed: "What was the point of the whole series of events if not for the hero to mature?"

Amelia is 15 and possesses all the usual accouterments of a pre-adult girl: insecurity about her looks, a confused love/hate relationship with her family and an Australia-sized capacity for crushing on a boy. She's emotional and earnest and invests an inordinate amount of her teenage intensity in characters from classical literature. Gatsby and Daisy get some harsh reproach, as do the Pip/Estella/Mrs. Havisham trifecta from Great Expectations. She heaps special judgement on those characters she decides are weak-minded in their romantic affairs.

In one of her rants against the feeble-mindedness of one character in her literature books who is pining for the love of another she poses the question "What was the point of the whole series of events if not for the hero to mature?" What a perfect question for a teenager, nay any-ager, to ask! It's especially wonderful because thinking about an answer shows the hilarious mixture of self-reflection and self-blindness that every person - not just 15-year-old hormonal adolescents - have boiling up within them. 

Chris, the object of Amelia's adoration, is a charming, outgoing lad of 21 years. He is friend and mentor to Amelia, dazzling her with his worldliness and University-man panache. Of course, their love can never be. Their age gap makes it impossible and besides, he is playing Gatsby to another - a girl who has broken his heart and sentences him to "a lifestyle of soul-wrenching loneliness and sexual frustration." He is, as his sister points out, "pretty passionate about [his] unhappiness." Despite his many bad habits - drinking, drugs and an obsession with playing the "Field" (he capitalizes "the Field" in his diary) - Chris is a good boy. From his ramblings in his diary, we learn that he's a decent chap and I have great hopes that one day he'll be a good man. 
How Amelia tries to hide her feelings for Chris while simultaneously reaching out to him for company and friendship are adorable. Like watching a puppy try to climb down the stairs for the first time. You want her to succeed but are waiting for the tragi-comic tumble of fluff and fur that you are certain will take place. 

I really enjoyed the book. I initially had some reservations because I felt that apart from some sharp observations about how young people learn to love, not much actually happens in the book. But I see now that I was wrong. What was the point of the whole series of events if not for the hero to mature? I think, the story ended before true maturity takes hold - Amelia does learn a few things that will probably lead her to maturity eventually. But I am still waiting for the tumble down the stairs. Nevertheless, I left with the feeling that when the tumble does happen it won't be a bone-crushing one. Both characters will probably be changed by the experience, maybe even mature, but certainly not broken.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Best Man by Kristan Higgins

Skeptic scale♥♥♥♥

First of all, KH is wonderful and amazing and I want to jump up and down every time I read a new book of hers. Ok, now that that's out of the way, let's begin. 

He: Chief of Police* of a small upstate NY town. He used to be a bad boy in high school but has shaped up nicely and is now universally loved by everyone in town. 

She: Girl who gets jilted at the altar and then leaves her hometown to get away from her ex-fiance and the inevitable gossiping, but also to "find herself". She does manage to rebuild a great life for herself in San Francisco but never quite stops blaming the H, her ex-fiance's best friend, for ruining her wedding to the "perfect man".

Conflict: 1) She has to get over the fact that the H "ruined" her wedding, 2) Will she really move back to her hometown and will the H sack up and ask her to stay?

A few things that I thought were especially great/interesting:

1) Lovely setting - wine country in upstate NY. Lends to the sweet and romantic mood but in KH's hands, avoids being trite. I mean, a vineyard? This could easily have veered off into a horrible morass of sickly sweet grapey-ness - remember a Walk in the Clouds? Oh Keanu, you beautiful dummy.

2) The H was more alpha that KH's usual Hs. Which I hearted greatly.

3) There were some interesting examples of difficult relationships - particularly the one between the h's grandparents. It was very refreshing to see that issue dealt with so well in a romance novel - some (maybe most) relationships are products of circumstance and chance and don't really progress perfectly. It was a good reminder that we are living in a generation that is lucky enough to get to even pursue love and romance for their own sake. All the examples of disastrous relationships also provide good contrast to the main romantic relationship in the book between the h & H.

4) Once again we get to see a KH protagonist have a passion for something other than her man. This h loves the outdoors, nature, and her family's land and legacy. She works as a landscape designer and is good at her job. And she has a dog.

Things that were strange-interesting:

1) The H's name is Levi Cooper... anyone else thinking about a dude in a denim shirt and jeans. Maybe a Lee Cooper shirt and jeans from Levi's?

2) Seemed like the h was angry at the wrong guy the whole time. Surely it was a good thing that the H put an end to her marriage to a TOTALLY wrong guy? Why did she stay so angry with him? She does thank him for it in the end, but seemed like he saved her from a huge disaster up front so her bitterness towards him was extremely misplaced.

That's it...I'm such a KH fan-girl that I can't even think critically anymore... 

*There is something about this small-town sheriff/police chief trope that I am really beginning to enjoy. They're alpha but in a different way than a big-city lawyer/detective/biz tycoon is alpha. I guess there is the underlying theme of "caretaking" of the citizenry that automatically shows him to be a father-figure and a man of action and responsibility. Oooo mama. I feel safer just knowing such a man is out there (in my imagination).

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson

Skeptic scale: ♥♥♥♥

Reading this book was like taking a pleasant walk in the English countryside with your elderly uncle - a slow meandering pace punctuated by your uncle's sharply witty asides delivered periodically as you both bend down to observe a mushrooms growing in the shade of one of the countryside's towering yews. That's what I imagine elderly British gentlemen do during their walks, anyway.

It is the story of a retired Major who feels keenly the loss of the old ways. A fervent traditionalist, he almost surprises himself when he forms a friendship with Mrs. Ali, the keeper of the village sundry shop and a woman of Pakistani descent. The friendship between them develops into a sweet, cozy love and we get to see a man of somewhat rigid beliefs make the brave effort to adapt and change his staunchly held worldview with wonderful dignity.

The story was lovely, maybe a leeeetle bit slow, but the slowness of the pace was more than made up for by how FUNNY the story was. Just little hail stones of prickling observation sprinkled throughout, usually in the Major's "voice", that melted before you can pick them up and hold them in your hand to over-analyze them.

Here are a couple of gems: 

"Perhaps it was the result of evolution, he thought - some adaptive gene that allowed the English to go on making blithe outdoor plans in the face of almost certain rain"

"His face wore the glazed expression of someone calculating how much of a smile to deliver"

" I get older, I find myself insisting on my right to be philosophically sloppy"

"...they resembled to halves of a walnut, charming in their wrinkled symmetry"

"He opened his mouth to say that she looked extremely beautiful and deserved armfuls of roses, but the words were lost in committee somewhere, shuffled aside by the parts of his head that worked full-time on avoiding ridicule"

I better stop now or I'll just end up quoting the entire book! 

Ok, ONE more and then I'm really stopping:

"I always thought it important to decide where one would be buried, and then one could sort of work life out backward from there."

Monday, April 8, 2013

Damsel in This Dress by Marianne Stillings

Cover of: The damsel in this dress by Marianne Stillings

Skeptic scale: ♥♥♥♥

Fairly typical, not-so-mysterious-stalker mystery, but who the hell cares? It was cute and well-written and generally a good time read. MS is a fun, fun, fun writer. Quick, snappy banter and some really silly situations that MS manages to make seem believable and charming.

He: Detective and writer of tough-guy crime novels whose literary efforts, despite earning him a large fan following, fail to make an agreeable impression on the h.

She: Editor of a small town paper who sometimes reviews books. She writes several harsh reviews of his books for her small readership to which he takes great umbrage.

Conflict: After a pugnacious back-and-forth over email over her unfavorable review of his latest book, H&h meet by chance at a writer's conference. Once they realize who the other is, each is predisposed to dislike the other - except for the pesky attraction buzzing between them. When it turns out she has stalker*, he sets aside his annoyance at her unfairly negative reviews and puts on his Protector hat and sets out to save the day, and the pretty lady. 

Sooo cheesy. But we love it.

*On that note, I must wonder why on earth so many contemporaries go with the Crazy Stalker plotline. I mean, how many stalkers can there possibly on earth? Any why are they all out to get these lovely, adorable ladies. least these chicks have a delicious detective to take care of them and keep them safe. Lucky them.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Candy Store by Bella Andre

Skeptic scale: 

Suspension of disbelief sends local Romantical Skeptic into anaphylactic shock. "I saw a tunnel," said the exhausted woman, "the light at the end of it grew larger and larger and then, all of a sudden, I saw a man standing there. That man was 50 cent."

Part 1 - Introduction
Before I begin, allow me to remind you of another candy store immortalized by the great, and simply charming, 50 Cent.

I'll take you to the candy shop
I'll let you lick the lollipop
Go ahead girl, don't you stop
Keep going til you hit the spot, whoaa

I'll take you to the candy shop (yea)
Boy, wanna taste what I got (uh huh)
I'll have you spending all you got (c'mon)
Keep going til you hit the spot, whoaa

You could have it your way
How do you want it?
You gonna back that thing up or should I push up on it?
Temperature rising, ok
Let's go to the next level
Dance floor jam packed, hot as a tea kettle
I break it down for you now, baby it's simple
If you be a nympho, I be a nympho
In the hotel or in the back of the rental
On the beach or in the park, it's whatever you into
Got the magic stick, I'm the love doctor
Have your friends teaching you about how sprung I got you
When you show me what you working baby, No problem
Get on top, get your bounce around like a low rider
I'm a seasoned vet, when it come to this shit
After you work up a sweat, you could play with the stick
I'm trying to explain baby, the best way I can
I melt in your mouth girl, not in your hand (uh huh)

You're welcome.

Because if you are in the mood to read something fun and raunchy, you may as well read the lyrics to this song, because Candy Store, the book, is just so far beyond absurd that you might end up with an aneurysm. I can't even review this. I am without speech. But you need to know so I will summarize the story in one breath so I don't waste a second Oxygen/CO2 cycle on this. 

Part 2 - Snapshot summary
Here goes:

Callie's beloved candy store is going to have to close because she has put all her energy into making orgasmic truffles and none into learning how to do the books but that's ok because it turns out Derek (Derek!?) who she hooks up randomly with at her friend's wedding is the Candy King, the man who Fixes Things for the candy industry (I know, WTF?) and can help her fix her business by making her a website (because the Internet is SO hard, you guys) and advising her to sell hot chocolate to ice skaters and while doing all this they hook up multiple times in uncomfortably icy places (an industrial refrigerator (!?), by the side of a frozen-over lake, in a supply closet) which they are apparently unconcerned with because their passion keeps them toasty.

I think you may as well stop reading right here. I mean, the dude's name is DEREK and he's the CANDY KING. The profession of being a Candy King, apparently pays well enough to let him drive a Ferrari. Apart from a general curiosity about what type of emergency fix-it man is needed at the Hershey's and Jelly Belly plants, you already have all the information you need to make a decision about whether or not this story is to your taste. You should probably all just move on and save yourselves.

Unfortunately for me, I'm sunk. I can't let it go and I will move on to Part 3 of my rant. I advise you not to join me there because it'll seriously bring you down. The negativity, the harshness. You'll be miserable.

Part 3 - Chapter breakdown
I'm going to practically have to go line by line from beginning to end and make my comments because I won't be able to sleep ever again until I purge everything from my system. Let's begin.

Chap 1&2: H & h meet at the bar at the wedding of mutual friends. He's having a drink, she asks for "anything strong". He instructs the bartender to give her a tequila shot (rude, you can't just barge in and force someone to drink nasty hard alcohol). He then proceeds to teach her how to drink a tequila. The sexy way, obviously. By licking the salt off the other person and then sucking the lime off of the wedge in the other person's mouth. Yeah, ok I get how this can be hot on a sultry night in Tijuana. But we're at a wedding in Saratoga guys. Pack it in. 

Also, how come she didn't learn how to do tequila shots from watching The Cutting Edge (that movie about a US Olympic ice skating double) like everyone else? I watched that when I was 15 and although I didn't actually get to drink a shot till I was legal, I knew the mechanics. 

Chap 3&4: While the are doing their inappropriate little public tequila seduction, the H is called away to make his best man speech and she runs off to hide because she is so embarrassed. Where does she run off to? Not out the door into the parking lot or anything. But into the kitchen and into one of the big refrigerators. Recall that these are places where the mob stores their fresh kills or locks people in to die of cold and fright. He follows and finds her - the creepiness of this stalkerish action gave me chills down my back - and they proceed to do it against one of the shelves. 

Several points to make here: 1) George Costanza gets "shrinkage" from a few minutes in the pool and this guy can get it up in an icy fridge against a cold metal shelf? What a stud. 2) Why don't they arrange to meet in warmer climes (a bedroom, perhaps) in an hour or so when the wedding is over and they are not standing in a place that houses meat and dairy. They had one lousy tequila shot - they were hardly drunk enough engage in this level of nonsensical behavior.

Chap 5-12: They meet again when both learn that that he is, in fact, the Candy King and she has hired him to save her business by making innovative suggestions like having her build an e-commerce website. They manage to hook up again in several awkward and horribly cold places (e.g. outdoors next to a public ice skating rink in winter) while her business and their romance begin to thrive. 

I take a moment here to mention Derek's backstory. He has been hurt, terribly hurt, before by a money-grubbing fiancee who wanted him to be more than the Candy King (more? the man has a Ferrari for God's sake!). In fact, the ex-fiancee would have definitely approved of Derek's brother's insistence that Derek join his boring but successful accounting firm. But Callie is different. She loves him for him, not his Kingdom of Confection. Or so he thought. At a family dinner, he overhears Callie compliment his brother on his successful accounting practice and Derek construes this to mean that she too is a money-crazed b*-atch who wants him to sell out and be a boring old accountant. 

He drives off in his Ferrari (Wait! I mentioned that the automobile he drives is a luxury sports car, right? Because you should know that despite how it sounds, being a Candy King is a huge alpha dog characteristic) and throws a hissy fit at her apparent duplicity. She decides to go after him but chooses to wander around in the freezing rain and cold and ends up shivering in a ball at his doorstep. He picks her up and tenderly cares for her because she's a cold, helpless lamb who doesn't own proper winter gear. He now realizes he's been an ass and apologizes by sending her dozens of bouquets of flowers (oh, brother) and hires a string quartet (gag) and proposes to her in her candy store (barf). On Valentines Day (Sweet Merciful Zeus, there's no room left in the puke bucket!)

The end.

I'm feeling a little better now. Thanks, Skeptics. Sharing really does help.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Rules to Catch a Devilish Duke by Suzanne Enoch

Skeptic scale: ♥♥♥♥♥
Fallen women have all the fun.

I absolutely devoured this book. Loved it and said "awwww" out loud at least three times and didn't care that I was being a pathetic drip.

She: Illegitimate daughter of a nobleman who works in a gentlemen's gaming club. She's not your normal "ruined woman" heroine - you know the ones who have lost their virtue but retain an ethereal innocence that attracts the rakish hero. Nope. She's wicked and she has a lot of fun with it. 

He: Duke who has to give up his raking ways to marry before he turns thirty or he loses his fortune. Obviously, he looks for ladies of gentle breeding and noble birth as befits his station in life. But since he's a rake and intractable roue he can't help but be charmed by the decidedly un-virtuous h. 

Big positives
1) SE took some risks with both h & H - both are highly "modern" characters in their attitudes. But this risk was well worth it because both h & H were so sweet, so lovable, that you can't help but root for them. I actually think the modernity of especially the h's behavior when it comes to sex was dealt with so well that every girl in 2013 could sympathize acutely

2) The H is "hard to pin down" - he is described as detached, unemotional, moody and an all-round ducal bad@ss but he is so nice to the h and to everyone else that it doesn't quite fit with the description - doesn't fit, that is, until you see that the dark descriptions are reflective of what he thinks of himself, not a true description of his character. He is, in reality an all-round nice guy - he is nice to dogs, his servants, ladies (even fallen ones) and his shrew of a sister.

3) I loved the setting. I don't often read Regency romances set in almost Wuthering Heights-like bleakness. It's winter and everything is cold and dreary and you can almost feel the warmth lit by these two people - it's all very cozy and romantic. The Lit majors can discuss the metaphors of the icy conditions of his heart being reflected by his surroundings etc etc. but I shall only say that it was interesting and refreshing to watch the characters romp about in the snow and ice as opposed to walking sedately in the inevitable verdure of an English garden

Mild negatives
1) I didn't really get the sister character. She seemed to have a serious motive for the H not marrying so not sure why she was pressuring him to wed anyone at all. But ultimately I don't think it mattered that much. She was supposed to one of the villains so it's fine that she was not acting entirely rationally. Also, maybe she was also just terribly sad and embittered by her awful father and did a poorer job than her brother in coming out as a more graceful adult

2) Grey eyes for H and green eyes for h - this is something of SE's calling card and it feels overdone. I am a lover of this combination, true, but there are only so many times one can be entranced by descriptions of grey and green. There is one point where she refers to the H and also a previous H from a prior book - and there is a slightly awkward tangle where she tries to come up with different ways to describe the color grey. It was slightly amusing but also maybe a hint that the time has come for say a brown-eyed H? Tawny, whiskey-colored, coffee, mahogany, amber - pick your overcooked description! 

Obviously, this is a personal preference and does nothing at all to detract from the overall awesomeness of the book!